Why Minimalism is Communication 101


“Your total is $12.85. How will you be paying?”


“Would you like your receipt?”

“No, thank you.”

“I can help who is next in line.”

There are days when the check-out line is the only place we score points for clear communication. Not that the achievement is encouraging—it raises to its full, trivial stature and mocks us: “Today, at your best, you managed an information exchange that could have been handled by a moderately intelligent computer.” Maybe if our only needs were for food (and sleep) then we could fill our minds and hearts from the grocery store, as well as our bellies. But we’re determined for something more meaningful, yet frustrated for trying to access it.

There is power in the simplicity of the cashier-customer exchange. It shows how much small units of information may be handy for the listener. Even more, it shows how direct statements are responsible for the speaker feeling heard and being understood. Simplicity is so powerful, in fact, that it frequently balks at our attempts to harness it and send it to work. When the required information is insignificant, like finding out the price of dish soap, we manage. For something more significant—maybe unease about Sunday’s sermon or piercing convictions about change for your community—we exert ourselves for ideas, people and emotions; an infinite number of factors and factors which are infinitely complex. More often than not, one factor is under-or-over-represented or neglected completely, restricting its significant contribution to the situation.

That’s overwhelming. What if we stopped sweating over how direct we’re being and expressed ourselves more spontaneously? Not feeling heard? Just increase your repetition and your volume to an unavoidably noticeable degree. This response may explain one part of my generation’s seething interest in free speech and increasingly uncensored self-expression. That approach will eventually self-correct. Trying to feel heard implicates you in trusting others for some listening. But when everyone is ‘shouting’, no one is heard. Some will have to play listener. Simple communication aids listening and gathers listeners.

Yes, but what if simplicity is too great a risk to significance? There’s nothing like the sinking feeling for when the Trinity is the topic at bible study and climactically, it’s simplified to a metaphor about eggs or Neopolitan ice cream.

Minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once shared: “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”  He composes to convey the singularity and purity of an abstract idea; the music is the minimum sound necessary to indicate that idea, bypassing all notes that are frills and fringe. Instead of undermining complexity, simplicity works to elevate the most critical and essential aspect of a thought above its various details and nuances.  It is achieving the total idea with simple elements. Then, in the act of listening, the audience hears the whole idea as something in several parts. It affirms that the simplicity used by composer allowed his audience to receive the complexity of the idea.

The task of conveying what’s on our mind introduces the tug between the things we are positive we know and things we vaguely grasp. You have a choice. Sometimes, you limit yourself purely to what you know for certain. But other times, it seems worthwhile to expand your sentences and cast around for more intricate words, hoping that groping for a thought will eventually mean stumbling into one. You could use plain wording or decorate things up, hoping that all your little gestures will get your listener one step closer to understanding you.

I notice the latter most often. It’s been my preferred method until recently. It’s pretentious. Every time, I am pretending to know more than I actually do. The simplicity of the former way gets for points for sincerity, winning over more listeners.

Minimalist conversations aren’t universally useful. If it works at the grocery store, that doesn’t mean it’s going revolutionize your next family reunion. It’s often quite appropriate to process aloud, despite the baggage of unclear wording, tangents, and assumptions. But as an experiment and a tool not often used, minimalism refreshes us to the possibilities of simple speech and its power to deepen the significance of conversations where it is closest and most important to us.

Minimalism, Monasticism, and Paris Hilton

We are raised to be a culture of consumers. Advertisements on television, in magazines, and alongside our Facebook feeds bombard us with products, programs, and self-help items. We are promised that material goods will make us happier, healthier, sexier, smarter, or better liked. However we feel to be lacking in our lives, there is a product out there that assures to fill the gap. Even if we don’t feel like we need anything, we are told that we do, in fact, need many things. While filling my tank at the gas station the other day, a recording blared from the speaker above the pump informing me that I “deserved” a cool treat after my “hard day,” and that I should head inside the store so I could purchase my allegedly well-earned reward.

Last week, I went to see The Bling Ring in the theatre with my family. I am generally a fan of Sofia Coppola’s work, so I was looking forward to her latest film. It tells the true story of L.A. teenagers who burglarized the homes of Hollywood celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, stealing high-end jewelry, designer clothes, money, and more. I won’t go into too many details, as this is not a review of the film, but it got me thinking about American culture and consumerism. The characters in the film are, largely, unremoresful for their actions. The teenage girls are giddy when they enter Hilton’s walk-in shoe closet, and they begin trying on clothes like children playing dress-up. Toward the end of the film, when a reporter asks one of the thieves why he thinks the ringleader, Rebecca, wanted to steal from celebrities, he said he thought she wanted to have a taste of “…the lifestyle that everybody kind of wants.”

Do we all want that lifestyle, though? Or, if we do, should we?

As we drove home after the movie, my husband and his mother both commented that they felt depressed watching the film, and I think I understand why. It’s hard for me to fathom living the life Paris Hilton lives, the kind of life the characters in the film long to have: multiple walk-in closets filled to the brim with designer clothes, shoes, handbags, and jewelry; giant mansions in gated communities overlooking Los Angeles; expensive sports cars; thousands of dollars in cash tucked away in drawers and under the bed. I just can’t imagine having so many possessions that if a few dresses or pieces of jewelry went missing, I probably wouldn’t notice for a while. I can’t imagine having—or wanting—so much stuff. Yet consumerist culture teaches us that we should want what the teenagers in the film want. Perhaps the message is not as extreme, but the bottom line of every ad and commercial is that if we buy more things, our lives will be “better” and more fulfilling. The idea is depressing, I think, because fame and fortune are not true sources of fulfillment and satisfaction for humans.

I’ve mentioned before my interest in minimalist living (This blog has great tips and advice on how to de-clutter and simplify, as well as some interesting philosophical perspectives on minimalism). I get excited when I stumble upon a space-saving IKEA hack online. I use Pinterest to save photos of nearly-bare rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, and blank, white walls. By employing minimalist tactics in our home, my husband and I can ensure that we only own things we truly love and use. (Don’t get me wrong—we still have a long way to go, plenty to purge, and much to learn. I should also note that pragmatic, day-to-day minimalism can and should be adjusted to fit your lifestyle and family needs.) But while minimalism has many financial and pragmatic benefits (my husband and I recently moved out of our apartment, and nothing is a better argument for minimalism than the exhaustion of moving!), I believe a minimalist lifestyle aligns well with Christian living.

Consumerism is inherently self-centered: I buy things for me, because I want/need/deserve them. Conversely, Christ challenges us to die to our selves, master our passions, and forsake the things and desires of this world. The values of the rest of the world—like the values of the teenage thieves, or their celebrity victims, in The Bling Ring—are not the ones we should adopt. Minimalism helps me remember that experiences and relationships are more valuable than material wealth and possessions; likewise, Christianity reminds us that pursuing righteousness and sanctification through Christ and His Church is more valuable than achieving anything this world esteems. While we’re getting rid of things we don’t need and saving money by not buying more, we are in a better position not only to extinguish self-centeredness but also to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46), those who are truly in need. In these ways, minimalism fits naturally within the Christian life.

I am also intrigued by what could be called an extreme form of minimalism: the monastic lifestyle. I believe minimalism is a way to embody some aspects of monasticism without necessarily fleeing to the dessert and living in a one-room cell for the rest of your life, although I say that in no way to disparage true monastics. Modern Christians have much to learn and benefit from the lives of monastics. Recently, I’ve started reading The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which recounts sayings and experiences of ancient Christian monastics, and this quotation from the foreword puts it well:

Radical simplicity and integrity is [the sayings’] aim and purpose. The literature of the desert might be called the essence of Christian monasticism; but as the monk is preeminently the one who seeks to live by the Word of God, it has a basic relevance for all Christian people.

I’m not very far into the book yet, but already I can see that control is a large part of the monastic journey: control over the self, the tongue, the stomach, and, ultimately, sin. The lesson of control is one that I think all Christians, myself included, ought to learn and put into practice. Just as gluttony is slavery to food, consumerism is slavery to things, and living simply is one way to stop being subject to things and desires that should be subject to us. When our passions are under control, when our minds and homes are clear from the clutter of worldly and unnecessary thoughts and goods, then we can better focus on things that truly matter: things not of this world, but of God. When the weight of worldliness is lifted from our souls, we are better prepared for the journey of salvation, one that is best traveled lightly.